The energy vampires sucking the British net

The energy vampires sucking the British net

The energy vampires sucking the British net

The energy vampires sucking up the British network: Ruby Martin for The Telegraph

The energy vampires sucking up the British network: Ruby Martin for The Telegraph

The housing shortage in London and the South East has long been one of the most prolific problems facing the government.

However, a desperately needed new supply is unlikely to materialize anytime soon in West London, after developers were told last week that they could be prevented from starting new projects in the area until 2035, because the electricity grid ran out. the ability.

But underpinning the de facto ban is not just the tightening of energy supplies during the war in Ukraine: the increased demand for data centers is sucking up the British electricity grid.

These warehouse-sized buildings filled with computer servers draw so much electricity that the Greater London Authority (GLA) told builders it could take more than a decade before new developments in Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow can be backed up by the grid. .

Much of the problem boils down to the economic success of M4’s “Silicon Corridor”. As technology and finance companies compete for office space near the data centers that power their businesses, demand inevitably generates more supply.

About half of Britain’s estimated 200 data centers are located in the South East of England, with a large percentage concentrated in the area between Reading and Ealing.

SSE, the operator of the electricity distribution network covering West London and Slough, estimates that a typical data center campus needs 50 mega volt amperes (MvA), which is the electricity demand required by the 5,000-strong developments. to 10,000 homes.

With about a dozen planning applications for new data centers in circulation in the area, the enormous energy demand of these data centers needs to be closely examined.

In Ealing, for example, there are currently seven applications for building new data centers in front of planning inspectors.

A memo sent to home builders by GLA this month, seen by The Telegraph, stated that data center planning applications were blocking new housing developments until 2035.

He said: “Over the past two years the distribution network operator, SSEN, has seen the same volume of new data center connection requests in West London as the total electricity demand in the area.”

Some parts of the southeast may not have new homes until 2035

Some parts of the southeast may not have new homes until 2035

Switch to remote work

According to sources, the authorities have extensively used a first-come, first-serve system for allocating electricity demand. But a leap into remote working after the pandemic has helped to increase the demand for data processing and connectivity – and the electricity to serve it – which means the current system is no longer fit for purpose.

A spokesman for the Energy Networks Association described the problems in West London as an “isolated circumstance caused by a rapid and concentrated expansion of demand from localized growth in data centers, far beyond expectations.”

Yet the power problems are not limited to the three municipalities highlighted by the GLA. They extend further west into the Thames Valley, extending to Reading.

Tech companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Dell and Huawei all have bases here, in part due to the nearby transatlantic data cables feeding London. These follow M4 extensively, and companies along their path are eager to tap into these channels of commerce by absorbing the energy of the grid.

Estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) state that data centers represent about 1% of global electricity consumption, between 200 and 250 terawatt hours, with an “exponential” increase in demand.

Inextricably linked to data center energy consumption is the energy consumed by the data transmission networks, nerves and fiber optic arteries of today’s digital economy. Although the IEA claims that the energy intensity of these grids has halved every two years since the millennium, they still account for up to 1.4% of global electricity demand.

It means that in areas like West London, data centers are drinking electricity and their insatiable thirst is creating a drought in the surrounding area.

A six-foot-tall rack in a data center can hold up to 42 servers and consumes six to eight kilowatts (kW) of electricity. A typical data center can contain a few thousand racks, which means that a building the size of an industrial estate can contain between 500,000 and 1 million servers depending on the internal layout.

Reading data center

Reading data center

Reduce energy needs

Powering servers is only part of the data center electrical equation. The intensive computations required for artificial intelligence (AI) or corporate IT work generate heat.

Cooling fans need to be installed to get rid of the heat, and with such a large number of servers in such a small space, data centers need large, powerful industrial air conditioning systems to prevent a real meltdown from occurring. . About 40% of the typical energy consumption of a data center is used for air conditioning operation.

With these figures in mind, it’s easy to see how data centers like the London-2 facility of data center operator Virtus in Hayes, Hillingdon, need to draw up to 12.2 megawatts (MW) from the National Grid.

Slough, on the border of Hounslow and Hillingdon, is home to half a dozen such public data centers, as well as a number of single-user sites operated by large technology companies. Nearby Heathrow Airport has at least two public data centers and a significant number of private centers nearby, serving airlines and the travel industry. British Airways has two data centers near Heathrow, which power the airline’s operations and provide backup in the event of a breakdown.

Initiatives are underway to reduce the energy needs of data centers.

Craig Melson, associate director of sustainability at industrial body TechUK, said the industry is working on initiatives like the Open Compute Project, a Facebook-led scheme to redesign servers to use less energy.

Meanwhile, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has promised a partial solution within the next year, stating that the energy regulator Ofgem “has decided to change the connection tariff framework, from April 2023, which would see connection costs decrease. for housing developers requiring [electricity] reinforcement of the net to accommodate their connections.

Ultimately, the answer lies in the ability to generate and distribute electricity, combined with the political pragmatism that allows new, smaller housing developments to bypass data center construction and outfitting cycles.

While data centers can be vital to modern business and technology-dependent lifestyles, their vast electrical needs add yet another obstacle to solving the UK housing crisis.

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